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muslim colosseo

Many analysts and experts of Islamic terror are asking themselves the following question: why, out of all the terror attacks that occurred of late across Europe, was Italy never a target? Why is it that, since the 2001 attack against the World Trade Center, there hasn’t been any terrorist attack against the boot-shaped peninsula?

It is a good question, seen that, on paper, Italy is a country at risk, more-so than many other nations: it is geographically closer to unstable areas where terrorism exists, it is the destination of thousands of illegal immigrants coming from Africa and the Middle East, it has the Vatican (a highly symbolic target for whoever fuels religious terror) and has borders and coasts that are difficult to control. Finally, Italy has soldiers that are employed in many Middle Eastern countries with either training or military cooperation duties and has participated with its own contingents in the Gulf wars and in the ousting of Gheddafi in Libya.

The Muslim community

There are roughly 2.5 million Muslims in Italy, about 4% of the total population. It is a low-ball estimate based on official data and doesn’t account for all the illegal immigrants – many of them Islamic – that are present in the country without being formally registered.

Of these 2.5 million, roughly 1 million are Italian citizens that have been naturalized through regular procedures. These people are, of course, widely integrated in the social context. The same is true of the Italian individuals that have converted to Islam, about 100,000 total.

The remaining 1.5 million Muslims living in Italy are foreign nationals. Of these, considering the most ‘dangerous’ nationalities as far as terror is concerned, there are: 400,000 Moroccans, 100,000 Egyptians and 110,000 Tunisians. Again, these are registered people with a valid permit to stay in Italy. Most of the above individuals are economic migrants and are therefore concentrated in the Italian regions where jobs are easier to find, namely Lombardia and Veneto.

But the most significant figure with regards to security is that there are another 4 to 5 hundred thousand Muslims that live in Italy illegally.
However, it must be noted that the Islamic presence in Italy is more scarce than in many other European countries:

- France has 4.5 million Muslims (about 8% of the population), 1.5 million of whom come from Algeria, 1 million from Morocco and 350 thousand from Tunisia (plus another 100 thousand converted Frenchmen). France has an estimated 400 thousand illegal immigrants.

- In Belgium there are between 7 and 9 hundred thousand Muslims of whom 270 thousand are from Morocco. Altogether, they account for roughly 7% of the total population.

- In Germany, Muslims account for 6% of the population, in Great Britain 6.3%. There is the Netherlands with 7.1%, Austria with 6.9%, Denmark 5.4% and Greece with 5.7%.

Only Spain (2.6%) and Portugal (0.4%) have a lower concentration of Muslims than Italy, while Cyprus, seen its geographical location, has about a fourth of its population that is Muslim.

Altogether, there are roughly 19 million Muslims living in the European Union, accounting for roughly 4% of the overall population.

muslim italy

The social situation

Statistics are not thoroughly descriptive of the terrorist phenomena because there is no proven, direct correlation between Muslim communities and Islamic combatants. Also, terrorism should not be measured with numerical factors but rather with sociological ones.

Here is a fact: in Italy there aren’t any ghettos where the Muslim population lives secluded and auto-marginalizes itself from the country’s social context. The same cannot be said of France, Belgium and Great Britain. The isolation and social marginalization facilitate the individual’s identification with objective elements that distinguish the social context in which that individual lives, namely religion. In such circumstances, the religious factor becomes an element of juxtaposition with the rest of the world surrounding the ghetto, producing frustration and hate. It is social marginalization that gives origin to the spiral that brings about the radicalization of an individual. Terrorists grow and hide in the culture of being ‘different’. This is especially true for second generation youths.

There are – officially, at least – about 1,200 mosques in Italy, a dozen of which are proper mosques, while the rest are based inside run-down structures (garages, warehouses, depots, basements). The latter are where radicalization most often occurs, so the Italian Interior Ministry has reached agreements with the majority of Islamic associations in the country to cooperate in monitoring those mosques.

Consequently, there exists a dialogue between the local Islamic communities and the Italian government. Both parties strive to achieve dialogue, integration and to prevent the contagion of radical Islam.

The Italian Islamic volunteers

There are 125 cases of Italian and/or foreign citizens that have left Italy as volunteers to fight alongside Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Altogether, there have been roughly 42,000 volunteers coming from 120 different nations. 5,000 of them were from Europe (17% were women). Of these, 8 to 9 hundred came from the UK, over 1,700 from France, about 950 from Germany, 5 hundred from Belgium and 3 hundred from Sweden and from Austria. Again, figures in Italy are limited (compared to the number of Muslims living in Italy and to their incidence on the overall population).

According to statistics, 30% of these volunteers are thought to have died in combat and another 30% are expected to return to their countries of origin.

But back to the Italian case: of the 125 volunteers who left from Italy, 37 have died, 22 have returned to Europe, 10 of which to Italy. The rest settled in the countries where they fought or moved to other battlefields. Out of the 125, 10 were women, mainly between 18 and 30 of age. On the whole, they represent a mix between first and second generation immigrants. Most of the 125 came from small towns outside the main metropolitan areas of the country. Most of them were also previous offenders or afflicted by mental illnesses.

Islamic terrorism can strike anywhere, at any time, making it nearly impossible to fully eradicate the phenomenon; after all, it is a scourge that is rooted in many nations and that follows the logic of an aimless campaign of violence without limitations. All things considered, Italy has managed to save its territory from this violence, this far.

Surely luck has an incidence, but it is no parameter to measure success.

For one, the Italian security forces have met the phenomenon of terrorism with an important baggage of experience from past events: namely left, right wing terrorism and the fight against the mafia and organized crime. Having fought such organizations in the past, security forces were able to apply their know-how to the fight against terror. The experience in fighting local criminal organizations (Sicilian mafia, Camorra, Ndrangheta) was especially valuable in driving security forces to perfect their use of electronic instruments, wire-tapping, monitoring inside prison structures, video surveillance, tailing, use of privileged sources, infiltrators, undercover operations, sociological studies and the correct psychological approach. All of these experiences were transferred into the fight against terror.

Italy’s security forces are peculiar in that they are divided into several different structures: Police, Carabinieri (military police), AISI, AISE (both intelligence agencies) and the Guardia di Finanza (financial police). This would seem like a useless waste of resources, yet in this case the goals of the various structures are convergent. A 2015 law gave the preexisting DNA (Direzione Nazionale Antimafia / National Antimafia Direction) jurisdiction over terrorism. Although there is an overlapping of operative apparatuses, their coordination is centralized and administered by the DNA, which can sum up its anti-mafia experience with the experience in fighting terror.

Another specific trait of the Italian system is the possibility to expel foreign citizens from the country for national security reasons. If there are founded suspicions that a foreigner is grazed by terrorism, that individual is sent back to his country of origin. It is called an ‘administrative expulsion’.

rome mosque
Rome has the largest mosque outside the Muslim world, Russia and India

The new 2015 legislation increased the number of possible crimes in the field of terrorism and consequently widened the spectrum of possible applications of the administrative expulsion. The frequent use of this instrument from 2015 on has allowed Italy to prevent and repress the threat of terrorism before it could land in court. This is both a deterrent (the potential terrorist will be faced with a treatment in his/her home country that is less respectful of that person’s rights) and a means of preventing the spread of radicalism, which often occurs while in prison.

Another initiative that still needs to be properly evaluated is that of creating an ‘Italian’ Islam through the formation of Imams by more moderate Koranic schools and through the introduction of sermons in Italian, a closer dialog between national Islamic institutions and State authorities, further integration of the Islamic community and a preferential lane between local exponents of Islam and the Vatican. All of this is aimed at creating a closer collaboration which, apart from easing integration, will also embrace elements of security, because it is in the interest of both communities to strive to repress radical Islam.

The recent designation of a Muslim Italian parliamentarian to the seat of director of the Islamic Cultural Center of the Rome mosque is a concrete step in this direction. By giving way to a ‘national’ Islam, outside ‘sources’ of radical Islam, like the Muslim Brothers or the Saudi Wahabism, can be reined in. It is not by hazard that the designated Italian-Moroccan parliamentarian, who came from a more moderate Maliki background was chosen over the other candidate, the Saudi ambassador.

On the whole, although all of the above elements might have contributed to halt the diffusion of Islamic radicalism throughout Italy, the so-called “zero risk” scenario doesn’t exist in the fight against terror. One can prevent, repress and enact all due devices in the field of security, but randomly targeted terror can still strike anywhere at any given time.

In 2017 we witnessed attacks in Barcelona, Paris, London, Manchester, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Saint Petersburg. Overall, there were roughly 70 victims. These individuals died without a reason; they were useless killings. Italy has so far managed to stay out of the black list, perhaps also thanks to the right approach to this social phenomenon that is striking Europe of late.

In fact, the last terrorist attack in Italy, which caused 23 deaths, dates back to December 27, 1985, and was carried out by a group of terrorists led by Abu Nidal.

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